Potions and Pills – The Modern Consultant at Work?


I notice a thread running through my blogs. I’ve become more passionate about interrupting, in myself and others, a superficial kind of patter; I’ve become intolerant of over-simplistic models and explanations of change and leadership which are still being hawked around.

Let me give you an example of unhelpful formulas. I’ve been working this week on issues of personal, team and organisational transitions. I’ve been struck by how many so-called ‘Change Curves’  take Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work on grief and transitions, distort the basic insights and create their own magical thinking on how they hope people will handle transitions. ‘Anger’ gets transmuted into the more palatable feeling of ‘Frustration’, and the ups and downs of transition get smoothed away into a single upwards journey towards ‘Acceptance’. This kind of fantasy thinking won’t help our clients.

The theme of last week’s blog – Madness and Magical Thinking, Everyday Life in Organisations – struck a chord with many people. One former colleague wrote to me:  “I agree with your article. Most organizations are toxic because people build some sort of “persona” to survive or strive in there… more and more I avoid working with them, or, at least, with those where I feel it is not possible to get beyond this curtain”. We need to create the conditions for more authentic conversations. Authenticity is easy enough to put on a leadership competencies framework, but not so easy to create in reality in the context of highly politicised organisations.

I am looking in different places for insights. Poetry is helpful; as I prepare for this session on leading organisational transitions, I’m reminded by the poet, Juan Jimenez, that identity is not a simple concept.

I am not I.

                   I am this one

walking beside me whom I do not see,

whom at times I manage to visit,

and whom at other times I forget;

who remains calm and silent while I talk,

and forgives, gently, when I hate,

who walks where I am not,

who will remain standing when I die”.


So how do we proceed?

  • With passion and humility,
  • With fierceness and compassion,
  • With clarity, doubt and not knowing,
  • With a smile
  • As we navigate the complexity and contradiction that is organisational life…

Madness and Magical Thinking – Everyday Life in Organisations

8850-munch-the-scream-e1336013995741I’ve given myself 90 minutes to write something worth saying. Why so little time? I’m caught up in the doing of organisational life… and life generally. I feel the pressure to keep moving, no time to pause. I have to get an enormous amount of stuff DONE… and yet also feel compelled to speak up and name some of what I am experiencing, even though this will be incomplete.

I am re-experiencing something that I felt strongly 15 years ago when working with one of the world’s largest consultancies: the dominant way of talking about and making sense of what is going on in organisations is woefully inadequate.

I feel caught by the same dilemma that I see my clients experience. How do you talk about the complexity, contradiction, doubts and dreams, hopes and hopelessness we privately experience when the public conversation in organisations seems so restricted? The bandwidth of our public conversations, what gets talked about on conference calls, in town hall meetings, in teams and formal meetings,  leaves out whole realms of experience. The public conversations seem magical – in the sense of magical as unreal – as we conveniently but disastrously leave out the untidy, difficult aspects of what is going on; the bits we have no idea how to influence or control. This is where madness creeps in, as a gap opens up between what we experience and know (cognitively, emotionally, intuitively, somatically) and what feels possible to say. We can feel like we are mad in the sense of something is wrong with us; we are left privately with the messy reality whilst publicly it all seems so straightforward.

As individuals we spend lots of mental and emotional energy making sense of, worrying about, or pretending this gap doesn’t exist. This is mostly a private activity, late night/early morning reflections or in our dreams, or over a drink with a friend/close colleague. The trouble is that whilst it remains in the informal, private space the magical, unreal conversations carry on in organisations.  And nothing changes. This path of collective ‘madness’ and magical thinking has unintended, unnecessary costs: to the individuals in terms of their well-being and motivation; to organisations as valuable data, about where they are and where they could be, is lost to the system.

So where do we start in breaking through the madness to sanity, and from magical thinking to a more grounded experience of reality? Here’s a list of some things I’m doing.  A starter to which I hope you will add:

  • Practise mindfulness – our capacity to pay attention in the present moment without judgement. I have an individual daily practice of ten minutes of pausing, breathing and becoming more present. This is supported by two longer practice sessions of an hour each week where I join a group of people in Brighton who practice mindfulness together and periodic longer retreats. I’m curious about how we create shared or collective mindfulness in organisations. There is an opportunity on 5 & 12 June in London to explore this further with three master teachers in this emerging field of collective mindfulness.
  • Take our freedom seriously. I have the possibility of being an Independent Middle. I am using ‘Middle’ in the way Barry Oshry describes the relational space where we are caught between the pulls of different realities, people and groups, each with their own needs, perspectives and priorities.  How do I retain my independence of thought, judgement and action in service of the larger whole?  We don’t just have to react and be subject to the pulls and tearing around us. I have a choice in how I respond. I have to recognise that the feelings of powerlessness, confusion and aloneness are mainly systemic and come from my disconnection from others and my own experience: the gap I spoke about earlier.  When I integrate with others, whilst honouring the difference between us, then both my feelings and my sense of power transform and grow. The feeling of madness dissipates as I realise that others have been suffering the same private dissonance. 
  • Speak up – how do I get a sense of what is needed and connect with others to explore concerns, dilemmas and possibilities? How do I find my voice and skilfully speak up about what matters? The skillful part is important; my favourite leadership book by Ron Heifetz is subtitled, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. I also need to remember that powerful speaking up (advocacy) is always connected and grounded in deep listening to myself and others (inquiry).

In making this shift of awareness and action Pablo Neruda, the poet, invites us to start with a moment of quiet.

“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”



“He was uncommonly kind to me” Bill Clinton on Nelson Mandela

Kindness was one one of the many qualities  Nelson Mandela embodied.  Mandela’s kindness was offered freely and indiscriminately to people of great positional rank (President Clinton) and no rank. Where did this kindness come from?

In a revealing interview on BBC Newsnight last week, Clinton threw some light on this, relaying a conversation he had had with Nelson Mandela. Clinton asked: “How did you do this? You had to hate those people. Look what they did to you.” Mandela replied: “I was young and strong when I went into prison. For 11 years I lived on my hatred. Then one day I was breaking rocks and I thought of all they done to me and all they had taken from me. They had abused me physically and emotionally. They had taken away my right to see my children grow up and eventually destroyed my marriage. I realised they could take everything  except my mind and my heart. These things I decided not to give away.”

Mandela’s life attests to the truth that kindness is often cultivated in the midst of suffering as the poem Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye, reveals.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go as you know

how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sesne anymore,
and kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is you I have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Three questions to ask ourselves:

What kindness have we received from others in recent days that touched us?

What kindness might suddenly break through our barren lives if we paused and, for once, gave up on advancing our own agenda?

What simple gift of kindness might we offer today?

See More – Adopt the Beginner’s Mind

zen of seeing

Thinking creates the world. I discovered more than a decade ago that my thinking, and I would argue many people’s, stays within a very limited set of tracks. This was quite a shock at the time;  I believed I was a creative thinker and doer.

“We do a lot of looking… Our looking is perfected every day, but we see less and less.” Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

If we want to be a positive force for change and evolution in our organisations, communities and wider world then we have to start with awareness. We need to see more and see deeper, not just the symptoms but the structure that drives our own & other’s behaviour and the behaviour of larger social systems.

Cultivating the quality of attentiveness is key:

  • How can you cultivate a little more attentiveness this coming week?
  • How can you adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’ a little more of the time?

Oftentimes, our knowledge, theories, frameworks lead us to seeing less, the effect of confirmation bias, seeing what we expect to see, and therefore seeing nothing new. Beginner’s mind is not ignorance, it’s the humility to acknowledge that there is much we don’t know about organising, human systems and leading. We have lots of data and knowledge but do we have sufficient insight and wisdom?

A short story may illustrate the issues. Yesterday, I was on a sight-seeing bus in Kuala Lumpur. I’m working here in the early part of next week. Rather than hear the tourist guide commentary I was ‘treated’ to an American business woman sitting next to me on her mobile  planning a meeting with her colleague . It was quite surreal.  I wondered, listening in, if I was part of The Truman Show or a new episode of The Office. Within 5 minutes she had been through every over-used word in the organisational lexicon: key performance indicators, gap analysis,  aligning values, driving behaviour, better links between the culture team and the talent assessment team…

What caught my attention was a realisation that there’s a way we can use these terms to create an abstracted, ordered reality which we then think is real. There’s a way our language and our thinking goes down the same old tracks and we get the same old results. Many of us enter this trance-like way of speaking (and living?) which is why programmes like the Office and the Truman Show are so popular: we see an aspect of ourselves reflected back. This isn’t the whole story or at least the end of the story. There are other possibilities…

How do we wake-up and see something new? say something new? experience something new this week?

How do we adopt a beginner’s mind?

Being Human on a Full-Time Basis: Death

Britian Thatcher

Death isn’t often included as a topic on leadership development programmes. Perhaps it should be.

Yesterday’s short address by the Bishop of London at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral raised a number of important questions for us all. I have included some of his address in quotations.

Who are you? What is the continuity that is you, not just your roles or positions, but the story that is playing out through your life? What are the unique gifts that you bring to those you love, those you work with, and the community in which you live? “The atoms that make up our bodies are changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking. We are atomically distinct from when we were young. What unites Margaret Roberts of Grantham with Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven?”

“After the storm and the stress have passed and there is a great calm” what in the end will make your life seem valuable? The questions that will be important when we look back concern us all now. “How loving have I been? How faithful in personal relationships? Have I discovered joy in myself, or am I still looking for it in externals outside myself?”

Are you living your life on purpose? If one definition of power is the ability to achieve purpose, then Margaret Thatcher was a powerful person. We can debate her politics but she was committed to achieving “what she believed to be right for the common good”. What purpose are you committed to in how you live your life? If we looked at the pattern of your life, how you spend your time and money, what purpose does it embody?

Are you willing to live your life with knowledge of your death in front of you? “Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.” As Ernest Becker pointed out in his classic book, Denial of Death, we spend much of our life attempting to deny the oncoming reality of death, pushing our fears deep into the unconscious. I notice in my consulting work how we often treat organisations as mirages of certainty and permanence, in the face of the transitoriness of life. In many ways this suppressed fear of death is a flight from life. How about embracing our impermanence, celebrating our brief sojourn on this fragile planet and waking up to the possibility that our life represents?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? asks the poet, Mary Oliver.

What’s your story about leadership?

I’m struck by how narrow the narrative is around organising and leading. A whole raft of experience of what it means to be a human working with others is left out. The focus is on skills and knowledge.

My questioning of the story we tell about leadership was triggered by a poem I read this morning which talked about ‘learning to fall’, in the sense of accepting our fallibility and vulnerability. Does this figure in our teaching about leadership? Not enough. The typical set of leadership competencies relates to some super-human figure I rarely meet: falling or failing is not typically part of what gets talked about. It’s for this reason that I particularly like Adam Kahane’s book, Power and Love, A Theory and Practice of Social Change with its chapters on ‘Falling’, ‘Stumbling’ and ‘Walking’ which speak directly to the struggle of personal and collective change: the setbacks as well as the successes.

How we talk matters. We lead through language as well as through action. Notice what gets talked about in your organisation, or if you are a consultant notice the tenor and content of your conversation with clients, including what is not talked about.

The stories we tell ourselves and others set the parameters for what is possible and what is considered valuable.

Be a radical: expand the conversation. What do you care about that is rarely said?

I was part of a story-telling session the other day with colleagues about what had shaped and was shaping our organisation. One colleague observed a thread in the stories – the qualities of forgiveness and welcome – words I rarely hear used in organisations, and yet central to human relationships of all kinds. What qualities of human relationship need to be named and cultivated in our organisations? In the context of the NHS in England, I wonder what qualities have been absent in the Hospital Trusts and Care Homes that failed patients, residents and their families?

Talking about what’s been lost and forgotten and what needs to be regained is an important and courageous conversation. This is particularly so because it’s personal, and includes us in what we’ve lost, what we’ve forgotten and what we want to regain.

Changing the conversation we are in may be the first step in changing the world, one conversation and one person at a time. This much is in our influence.

Hope and Hopelessness: centre your life in the practice of Active Hope

DoriMidnightSpiralFaced with strong, overwhelming feelings of hopelessness I’ve been asking myself how do we sustain ourselves in dark times?

Last week, I responded to a tender for work with a failing organisation: I felt I could offer nothing. Later that day, after a conversation with my wife, who offered a listening ear, I remembered that I should take my feelings of hopelessness seriously, but not personally.

I reflected on what I had been blind to earlier, which now seemed obvious; a narrative, set out in 300 pages in the tender documents, assumed that a clear vision, confident leadership, cascading communications and a rational blueprint plan would move this  troubled organisation in a linear fashion to the desired destination.  The failure in the tender to acknowledge the brutal facts of the current situation lay at the root of my feelings of hopelessness: we first have to acknowledge we are lost if we are to find a path out of the wasteland.

Wherever you look in the public and private sectors our organisational challenges are enormous: how do we create innovative, healthy organisations that act responsibly and sustainably with respect to their customers, employees, wider society and planet? Many of our taken-for-granted ideas about governance, organising and leading are bankrupt.

In the practicality of everyday living and with the complexity of the challenges it is tempting to collude with Business As Usual and sink into either denial – there’s little I can do, it’s not that bad, it’s all their fault – or hopelessness.  Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in a new book, make a rallying cry for Active Hope, grounded in a deep commitment to creating the kind of world we long for; it’s a practice we continue with even when we feel hopeless.

Active Hope is distinct from everyday understandings of hope, the optimism that things will turn out well; the confident assumption that we can always be successful.  In the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, noted it was the optimistic campmates, anticipating early liberation or setting their hope on a particular outcome, who died early, broken by despair and hopelessness.

In the settings we find ourselves, how do we carry on and do the work that is needed?  I’ve drawn out five cairns from Joanna Macy’s book, Active Hope and from Meg Wheatley’s new book, So Far from Home. They are primarily shifts in being – how we are –- rather than a list of doing actions:

1. Being open to outcomes not attached to them: if we rely on immediate results and affirmation from others to sustain our work we will quickly end up feeling hopeless.  If we let go of personal ambition we also liberate ourselves from its Siamese twin, fear, which when it sees no results, cripples our ability to move forward. I re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy over the Christmas holidays; it demonstrates beautifully both the crippling paralysis of fear, and the possibility of transcending it. The films also illustrate three critical aspects of leadership:

  • The collective nature of meeting great challenges, at different times each member of the Fellowship, a somewhat unlikely, motley collection of characters, stepped forward and played their part.
  • Fallibility is an inherent part of the human condition and this weakness allows opportunities for others to contribute.
  • With complex challenges, we cannot see the solutions at the beginning nor the way ahead. We must learn to rely on hope “not as the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” (Vaclav Havel)

2. Practicing gratitude is the art of appreciation and thankfulness: it brings us into the here and now and an appreciation of what is sustaining us. It moves attention beyond self-absorption to notice what is supporting you. The practice of gratitude is related to appreciative inquiry in organisations, noticing what is already in place now and creating value. It is also related to asset-based approaches in community settings: identifying the gifts, resources and talents that are present rather than mapping, yet again, the deficiencies.

  • Review the last 24 hours: what are you thankful for? These can be small, ordinary items of your work and life.
  • Take a moment to feel your gratitude and acknowledge who or what contributed to these moments.

This isn’t a pollyannaish fluffy practice; even in, and perhaps especially, in the bleakest of situations we need to connect and ground ourselves in what sustains us.

3. Honouring the pain:  we manufacture hopelessness when a large gap opens up between what we feel and experience and what seems possible to say. We are social creatures; it requires courage and skill to interrupt the unspoken rules that set the narrow bandwidth for the content and emotion that is acceptable in a conversation. In conflicted situations we have to engage with the experience of current reality: this includes allowing feelings of anger, grief, hopelessness and blame to be heard if we want to make progress.  This also calls for the cultivation of compassion, for ourselves and others; that sense of fellow-feeling, to be ready to open to the experience of the other and walk in their shoes.  The priority is to cultivate this inner capacity and develop our skills in holding more ‘real’ conversations, where we can hear what is dysfunctional, stuck and destructive, as well as what is working, healthy and life-sustaining.

4. Seeing through new eyes:  In organisational settings, we need to be clearer about what can be planned up-front and what emerges as we start the work. The fog often lifts as we start the work; small actions have a cumulative power, new possibilities emerge as we bring the parts together, which were not present when the system was operating in isolation.  Meg Wheatley in So Far from Home, names two capacities that are necessary for us to see with new eyes: compassion and insight. Wisely, Meg says that we don’t need to insert compassion into people, “we need to create the conditions for it to arise.” Whilst we live in a story of our small selves: our job, our promotion, our group, our tribe, our country, there is little commonality with the other because fear and self-protection are to the fore.  What new possibilities emerge if we broaden our story? Our personal story of seven or eight decades is a brief burst of conscious life, which sits within a human story of 250,000 years and an earth story of 3.5 billion years. If we locate our stories within this wider, evolving story, different questions and insights arise. I am not responsible for everything, I can’t sort everything out, but what is the unique and particular contribution I can make?

 5. Going forth: are we willing to take the next step without the blueprint, fail-safe master plan? This seems the only viable option with complex challenges: we know the stakeholders disagree, sometimes violently; we know the past is no longer an adequate guide for the future; we know we have to create the path as we walk it.  And in acting, Meg Wheatley adds an additional challenge: can we act without adding to the fear and aggression in the world, both of which she predicts are likely to increase. This calls for a new higher level of self-examination and cultivation of our way of being.

Enough thinking. I have a proposal to write but first…a few moments of gratitude…

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